I’d love to talk my colour blindness up to being a disability, for a bit of sympathy, but to be honest, at the level I have it it’s no more than an occasional irritation. But some random thing happens every day that makes me aware of it. The effect is usually one of momentary confusion which can quickly be dispelled by context.
I have in the past looked at the science of it - something to do with the rods or the cones in my eyes not working properly - but it doesn’t really describe what the effect of it is, how it feels, so it doesn’t help much. You can look at various websites that try to simulate the visual differences experienced by people with different types of colour blindness - it’s impossible for me to judge how accurate they are.
I can see colour, I love and appreciate colour, but I find it hard to distinguish colours. I sometimes try to explain it as not having the words for colours: I look at something but can’t tell you if it’s blue or purple, I can't distinguish between greens, reds, browns, or light greens and yellows. And probably a whole bunch of other colours I'm not aware of. It feels like I can see lots of colours, but I know there is a lot of red missing, which makes it difficult to spot, for example, berries on a tree. Not a massive problem on a day-to-day basis. If I get up close and they're bright red I can see them.
Traffic lights are fine, they are distinct colours with clear tonal separations. I’m probably rather late to catch on when it’s autumn. I don't tend to notice the leaves have changed colour unless they are bright, or simply don’t look ‘green’ anymore. For me that's a tonal thing too. I suppose I miss out on a lot of subtleties.
The main impact on my life is that I end up feeling foolish from time to time. Someone will say “It’s next to the green car” and you’re looking round like an idiot. There’s a moment while you weigh up the options: it could be that car… is there another possibility? Is the context right? There’s enough hesitation and uncertainty involved to make you seem a bit slow. It’s too much to constantly be saying “I’m sorry, I’m colour blind, that’s why I can’t immediately spot the thing which to everyone else is obvious”. I do ask in clothes shops now, if Karen’s not with me. I’ve made too many mistakes where I’ve bought clothes that are apparently a horrible colour. A weird effect of my colour blindness is that I don’t really have a concept of ‘horrible’ colours. I'm not sure how specific this is to my condition, but it feels relevant. Sometimes Karen describes a colour as ‘bright’ that appears dull to me. I guess there's some information missing that I'm not receiving.
When I was small my mum would ask me to go into the garden and pick the ripe tomatoes. I couldn’t really tell which were ripe, except they were usually darker. That’s all I had to go on and it doesn’t always work. I felt a sense of failure and frustration and a flutter of anxiety which still lurks when colour matters come up. She realised I was colourblind from an early age because I drew purple skies. I loved drawing, wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but as I got older I realised you couldn’t be an artist and be colourblind so I gave up that idea. I think this misconception had a big impact on the subsequent course of my life.
Having frittered around on the dole for many years I eventually moved to London where I worked for the first time in a variety of temping jobs. It was during this period that I realised I’d like to study architecture and that, maybe, being colourblind wouldn’t be a barrier. I'd grown up with, and never really questioned, the notion that various careers were closed to me: train driver, pilot, police. Again, this idea lurked: architecture involves colour, so it’s not something I could do. But sod it, I’d try it anyway. In the end it wasn’t a problem. Occasionally there’d be a colour coded chart or map that I found difficult to read but that was never critical. There’s a certain threshold you reach where you simply have to explain to people, but otherwise you can get by.
So, after 10 years or so of architecture I finally decided I might become an artist. That childhood sense that I was an artist but couldn't be one… maybe it was time to throw that out. Of course it’s obvious to me now you can do these things on your own terms, the uncertainties are nothing compared to the possibilities. As an artist you make your own job anyway. There are certain things I can’t do, much to my frustration. I’d love to be able to paint landscapes using the ‘right’ colours. I know people say I can do it my way, but it’s just too hard to do, trying to pick any colours. That’s why a lot of my work is black and white or the colours have no bearing on reality. I work mostly from my imagination partly because it’s fun, but also because I make the rules. There are no ‘right’ colours.
I would love to be able to use colour in a way that I felt I was in control of it. I think I use it successfully, but I’m not necessarily aware when it’s not successful. I rely on other people to tell me, usually my long-suffering wife who has to break it to me! Because we work together she often helps me find the right palette of colours, the right combinations. I tend to buy pens/inks etc that have the colours written on them. If not then we go through them and label them. Yes, I make the rules, but I still want to know what colour I’m using. I want to know what colours I’m mixing. Once I know I’ve got something that works I feel able to run with it confidently. There are occasional mishaps but on the whole it works. I love working with colour. I don't understand it, but it is still a major part of my aesthetic.
So, as I say, it’s not a major problem for me in everyday life and nor is it in my work. Creativity is always constrained in some way and part of what makes us better as artists is working within and against those challenges. Most artists will tell you they relish them, in fact.
As an addendum I would say, though, that more consideration should be given to colour blind users in everyday design. It’s relatively simple to do, there are plenty of guidelines. It's a shame that green and red are so often used as stop/go alternatives in all sorts of contexts as I find them very hard to distinguish. I frequently buy skimmed instead of semi-skimmed milk if I forget to check the label. Actually, even when I check the label. I am a bit dim after all. I have occasionally written to magazines, papers, local authority websites etc. about their graphics when they've used indistinguishable colours. I never hear back. Maybe it’s because it’s not a major disability and is not seen as a priority, but it’s a problem for 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women, and it’s a problem which is easily designed out.